Monday, April 16, 2007

An Introduction to Pam Grier

Movies: Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974)
Setting: Unspecified, southern California?; contemporary

She is the Queen of blackspoltation, a living legend for an ill reputed genera. Though probably best known to current audiences for her role on The L Word, the cultural presence of Pam Grier's 70's work is still very much alive, as witness Beyonce's embodiment of her in Goldmember. As I try to brace myself for a possible viewing of the 70's cult film homage Grindhouse, I thought I'd take a look (courtesy TCM late nights), at some actual examples of the periods sensationalized and exploitive fair, and one of its most well known performers.

There is a definite formula, or perhaps its just a shared world view between these two films. While they entertain with flash, and a gory over the top violence, they also capture something of the African American zeitgeist of there era. Black has become beautiful, and there's a definite racial pride and sense of superior hipness here, but recognition of a collective situation that is far from ideal is also apparent. The destructive powers of drugs and prostitution are simultaneously condemned and exploited, but hey there's a reason these are called exploitation films. I find it interesting that both films posit an exploitation of poor blacks by rackets controlled by rich and powerful whites, aided by corrupt cops (mostly raciest), and pushed retail by turn coat members of the black community. This no doubt rang true to the film intended audiences then, and in good part still rings true to white bread Mormon me 35 years later. Ethnically these rackets my now be more spread out, and I remain (perhaps in my white denial) ambiguous about the extent of a corrupt government presence therein, but the institutional racism can not be denied, the black community still pays an unproportionit share of the price for this system.

Now that I've hit on the social implications, I'll write briefly on these works as films. I know there suppose to be a kind of schlock now, and were kinky and low-brow even at the time of there release, but I must admit I kinda liked 'em (more so Coffy). I just enjoyed seeing Pam Grier get revenge on those who wronged her. In the first film its about avenging her little sister, who had been forced into an institution to recover from the effects of the drugs that ratfink thugs had pushed on her eleven year old self. In Foxy Brown, she's out to avenge her boyfriend, a sort of DEA agent who was gunned down by those he had investigated, after her brother sold him out. Actually both films feature an upstanding young black man and Grier love interest being killed or horribly maimed early on. In both movies Pam quickly decides she needs to go undercover as a call-girl, and we get to see her turn on a surprised client, as well as get involved in a brawl with a bunch of other women (at a party in Coffy, at a Lesbian bar in Foxy). Yes it sex and violence, but its also social justice (vigilantly social justice), so you get to finish the movie feeling okay about yourself. I can see what Tarentino sees in these films. Finally Kathryn Lodars madam comes across as Carolyn Jones meets Joan Collins by way of Annette Bening.


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